Fund It Yourself: How (and Why) One University Launched Its Own Science Crowdfunding Site

2 October 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

One university has taken an innovative approach to finding research dollars. (Photo: freepixels.com)

As grant dollars have begun to dwindle, the research community has become increasingly open to the idea of using crowdfunding to finance scientific research. One university has taken the idea a step further – creating its own crowdfunding site to support faculty research.

The new site, called Georgia Tech Starter (GT Starter), works much like more conventional crowdfunding platforms, such as RocketHub, Petridish.org or Kickstarter. But there are a few differences – like the requirement that projects pass a peer-review process before being posted on the site. And the fact that the financial side of the site is tied directly into the university’s existing research accounting system.

I was curious about this new platform. Is the university giving researchers science communication training to help them pitch their research projects? Is the platform itself a science communication tool?

To answer these questions, and many more, I talked to Allison Mercer, the Georgia Tech physicist who came up with the idea for GT Starter in the first place. [Note: this post has been updated. See below.]

Communication Breakdown: I know that you’re involved with the GT Starter project, but what is your background? Are you an active researcher yourself?

Allison Mercer: I’m an applied physicist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. I do both basic and applied research.

CB: When did you first come up with the idea for GT Starter? Was it in response to cuts in research funding?

Mercer: The idea came to me about two years ago. The research I was doing with bio-inspired adhesives did not quite match traditional funding opportunities and I was looking at some of the for-profit crowdfunding sites as a potential way to fund it. I was aware that cuts to science funding were a problem, and that new scientists were unlikely to be funded at the expense of more established programs. I was also aware that 43 percent of the projects up on Kickstarter were successfully funded, which is a huge success rate compared to traditional funding sources. However, at the time, the available commercial sites didn’t quite fit the model I had envisioned for truly effective and engaging science funding.

CB: I know that other universities have partnered with existing crowdfunding sites, but Georgia Tech decided to launch its own crowdfunding platform from scratch. Why?

Mercer: We saw a market trend and thought we could do something different. We are fully integrated into the fabric of Georgia Tech, which allows us to offer receipts for tax credits to donors. We leverage our expertise through a rigorous review process, ensuring that we do right by our donors, and we help our researchers clearly explain their scientific aims in a way that makes sense to the broader community. We also didn’t need to pay an outside website to host our projects, when we have the some of the best programmers in the world right here.

Allison Mercer

As a researcher looking to crowdfund a project, I wondered how I could raise funds on a for-profit site, and then use the clean room, the environmental SEM, and the micro-CT machine to image my specimens. How could I pay a student to work on the project? With our site integrated into the fully-audited Georgia Tech accounting structure, it’s very easy to do so, and it helps maintain the research facilities as a result, which keeps the lights on and gives our researchers access to tools they wouldn’t have otherwise.

And, while the idea was originally birthed out of a selfish motive, it began to evolve into something entirely different. It morphed into an idea that would allow us to reach out to the world and bring them closer to the scientific community. Scientists have not done a good job of explaining to the public the usefulness of their research, and the difference scientific research can make in our everyday lives. Using crowdfunding for science has broader impacts built into it—a community of people invested in the research, witnessing its benefits and outcomes.

I’d love to see Georgia Tech Starter used as an educational tool in K-12 classrooms as well. Imagine a science class donating to a project, and in return the class receives closer access to the researcher. For the minimum pledge of $5, they can follow the progress of the project throughout the year. I can’t imagine a better real-world method for learning about how the scientific process really works. It could also inspire a young person to pursue a career in science or engineering. It will allow scientists to tap the creativity and ideas of the public.

CB: How did you initially reach out to others in the Georgia Tech community about this idea? Who did you reach out to?

Mercer: I began telling everyone I knew. I told my department chair, my lab director, the programmers I thought would be good for the site, the user interface designers that I thought could design the site. The idea was disruptive at first, and met with some resistance. For the most part, however, the response was overwhelmingly positive. I happen to work in a university that is brimming with innovators. The first to champion the idea was my lab director, Dr. Gisele Bennett. The people I told started telling others about it, and we started building support for it. It didn’t hurt that the year we pitched it to the director’s office, Kickstarter raised $100 million for projects.

CB: What role did others play in moving GT Starter from “good idea” to reality?

Mercer: This has been a movement that has touched every facet of Georgia Tech, at every level. I would give you a list of names, but I don’t want anyone to try to hire them away! It is much – much – bigger than just me, and I’m grateful to have been a part of the process.

I will take this opportunity to brag about and thank: our office of sponsored programs, who were critical in the development of the site; our development office, and the innovative, forward thinkers there; our web development and design team, who designed and built a beautiful, simple, elegant, and intuitive site; our lab director, who championed the idea, and helped provide mentorship and guidance while we set about briefing the campus; our accounting office and legal team, who ensured that we could operate and still be in compliance with federal and state regulations; our president’s cabinet, and the office of the provost, who championed our endeavors as part of the university’s strategic plan; our communication office, for their tireless work spreading the word about GT Starter and the projects; and the countless faculty and staff of Georgia Tech for invaluable mentorship, advice, and feedback that helped shape the trajectory of the site.

CB: What distinguishes GT Starter from other crowdfunding platforms?

Mercer: A few things!

First, we have a rigorous review process—including scientific peer review—that ensures projects can be successfully executed before they hit the site. Our researchers already have impeccable standards, but it is through the peer review process that we confirm that the project creators have the skills needed to conduct the research, that the proposed budget is appropriate to support the project, and that the funds will be spent the right way. No other crowdfunding platform offers this kind of assurance to donors.

Second, we are not for profit, so all pledges are tax deductible.

Third, we allow our researchers to offer intangible rewards (rewards with no actual monetary value). This can come in the form of naming parts of the project after supporters, or downloadable data sets, or inviting supporters to the lab to work with the robots. A project that is currently in the draft stages is planning on offering digital photos of bioluminescent bacteria arranged into pictures, logos, or words on petri dishes. Pretty cool!

CB: How does GT Starter’s peer review process work? Are projects reviewed only by peers within Georgia Tech, or do you also use reviewers from other institutions?

Mercer: For our pilot, we have leveraged GT faculty for the review process. This may pose a problem when more faculty members adopt the site as a means to fund their research, so we will look into adding faculty members from other institutions if a conflict of interest arises.

CB: When did GT Starter actually go “live,” and how many projects were made available for funding at that point?

Mercer: We opened the site to the public September 3rd, when we had seven projects on the site, and five more in the draft stages. The review process is lengthy, and we needed to give the early adopters the opportunity to begin raising funds. The clock will begin ticking on the projects later this month, and the projects have 60 days to raise their funds.

CB: Does GT Starter offer training or other assistance to researchers in terms of helping them develop art or videos and craft good pitches for their projects?

Mercer: We do, which is not what we initially intended to do. Crafting a video and a pitch to the broader community is not a muscle that scientists exercise as often as we should, to our own detriment. However, we learn quickly. We have learned a lot from #scifund, too.

CB: Have any projects been fully funded yet?

Mercer: Not yet….fingers crossed! Our hottest project right now involves using RFID tags to monitor the behavior of honeybees.

CB: On most crowdfunding sites, the donations only go through if a project meets its funding goal. Is that true for GT Starter?

Mercer: GT Starter is all or nothing funding. If the project goal amount is reached, everyone’s credit cards are charged. If it isn’t, nobody’s cards are charged. We wanted supporters to be confident that the researchers would only get the money if the project goals could be reached. Some research efforts are scalable, but many are not. If it costs a million to launch a telescope into space, it doesn’t do you any good to get half way there.

CB: How did you handle setting up GT Starter? Did the university help set up accounts for donated funds? And what controls are in place to ensure the funds get to the relevant projects?

Mercer: The site is fully integrated into the accounting structure at Georgia Tech. This required a tremendous effort on the part of our accountants. When a project reaches its funding goal, the bank charges everyone’s cards, and transfers the money to a Georgia Tech subaccount that is earmarked for the project creator. The account number is set up through our office of sponsored programs, and the funds are tracked in much the same way as a traditional grant. The project creator also has to produce a final report summarizing the results of the research for auditing purposes.

CB: Crowdfunding only works if you can get the public interested in the projects. What are you doing to raise awareness of GT Starter?

Mercer: Why, answering questions on Matt Shipman’s blog, of course! We are also working closely with our colleagues at our communications office, who have given us tons of creative support. We are also working with project creators to help them draft and execute their own social media marketing campaigns. What we’ve done thus far is just the beginning. We’ve developed a pretty comprehensive communications strategy that will guide how we communicate across our own campus as well as with potential donors across the web.

CB: Are you tracking visitor numbers for the site? What sort of numbers are you seeing?

Mercer: We are, and so far we’ve only seen light traffic; in the thousands of hits. We are noticing however, that the unique GT Starter model is beginning to be a hot topic of conversation among science, technology and crowdfunding thought leaders. When we launch the next phase of our communication we are hoping the buzz will increase, along with site traffic.

CB: Any tips for other research institutions that may be considering a similar initiative?

Mercer: We will be doing a Reddit AMA (Shameless plug) on Friday, October 18th, beginning at 10 am. Come ask us specific questions; we’d love to help!

UPDATE, Oct. 9: A reader posed a question to me on Twitter, which I passed on to Mercer. That Q and A is below.

CB: Does Georgia Tech make any money off of GT Starter? How are the funds used?

Mercer: I can easily answer ‘no’ to that question.

Georgia Tech is a nonprofit and doesn’t make a single penny off of the donations made through GT Starter. All of the money donated is used to support scientific research.

GT Starter project creators benefit from having easy access to a world-class research infrastructure and professional research support, something not provided to project creators using other science crowdfunding platforms.

GT Starter is woven into the fabric of Georgia Tech, which pays for many of the things the scientists and engineers need to conduct their research. These are things like utilities, equipment, buildings and facilities, information technology infrastructure, as well as departmental and central administrative costs associated with managing externally funded research projects, safety and security, insurance, and regulatory compliance.

These are the costs of doing science and every scientist who has a project on any crowdfunding platform has to pay for these things somehow. Our accountants have determined that the indirect costs for GT Starter projects amount to approximately 26 cents on every dollar donated. This DOES NOT mean that only 74 cents of every dollar supports the specific project a person donates to. The 26 cents pays for many of the things our GT Starter project creators actually need to do the research. We work these costs into our initial project budgets. And, in many cases, we don’t even recover all the costs incurred. Our indirect costs are very different than the 5-8 percent fee many of the for-profit crowdfunding platforms pocket to simply host projects. We not only host projects, but we provide the complete infrastructure to accomplish the research too. Like I mentioned before, we don’t make anything off of this effort – at all.  For us, it’s all about the research and we do everything we can to support the project creators so they can be successful.

I’m glad you asked this question because I really want the public to know – and understand – what it takes to support scientific research in the real-world…no matter which crowdfunding platform a researcher chooses to partner with.


4 Responses to “Fund It Yourself: How (and Why) One University Launched Its Own Science Crowdfunding Site”

  1. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Note: I did this interview (and scheduled this post) before the U.S. government shutdown. But it now seems particularly timely, since the shutdown is an excellent reminder that relying solely on federal funding appears to be an increasingly risky proposition.

  2. Jessie Haynes Reply | Permalink

    I have been dreaming of the day when I could fund scientific research with a crowdfunding site. Of course, now that I'm a science journalist, my concern became that if I fund the research, it would probably be unethical to report on it. Of course, I see no harm in full-disclosure updates on my own blog.

    Thank you for this interview. Added the AMA to my calendar. Hoping to be able to help with this project, since my background is in copywriting.

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